This time, however, the legions for the Imperial
Presidency seem poised to overwhelm the weakened defenders of the
traditional American democratic republic who for years have chosen
retreat over confrontation.
That is the real back story behind the disclosures
that Bush is asserting his inherent powers to jail citizens without
charge, order the physical abuse of detainees, spy on Americans without
a court order, ignore treaties, and invade countries without the
necessity of congressional authorization.
Bush and Cheney are saying that in the War on
Terror, they must be a law onto themselves with the flexibility to do
whatever they deem necessary. When they say they are operating within
the law, what they mean is that their interpretation of the law gives
them unlimited powers.
As Cheney told reporters aboard Air Force Two on
Dec. 20, “I do believe that especially in the day and age we live in,
the nature of the threats we face, the president of the United States
needs to have his constitutional powers unimpaired, if you will, in
terms of the conduct of national security policy.” [NYT, Dec. 21, 2005]
So, this White House has thrown down the gauntlet
to Congress, the courts, the press and the broader American public – to
anyone who opposes an autocratic Executive – daring them to a fight to
In this looming showdown, the confidence of Bush
and Cheney is buoyed by the fact that they have a huge right-wing media
infrastructure that treats whatever they say as truth and will disparage
anyone who criticizes them.
This right-wing media machine – built over three
decades from the ashes of Vietnam and Watergate – demonstrated its power
in the 1980s by containing the Iran-Contra scandal and in the 1990s by
nearly hounding a Democratic president out of office. [For details, see
Robert Parry's Secrecy &
In contrast, American progressives opted for a
strategy that eschewed a counter-media infrastructure. Over the past
three decades, liberal funders invested mostly in social projects, such
as feeding the poor, and in local organizing with the slogan, “think
globally, act locally.” [For details on this strategy, see
Left’s Media Miscalculation.”]
The consequences of the Right’s investments in
national media are now becoming obvious, as the Bush-Cheney
administration uses its committed defenders to protect against negative
public reaction to its historic power grab.
While the White House can count on the Right’s
vertically integrated media machine – from cable TV to talk radio, from
newspapers and magazines to book publishing and the Internet – the
opposition has mostly scattered voices on the Internet and in fledgling
“progressive talk radio” to make its case.
In recent months, the mainstream press – humiliated
over its credulous coverage of Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass
destruction – has published a few revelations from government
whistleblowers upset over Bush-Cheney abuses. But the major news media
still shies away from going so far as to invite a right-wing backlash.
How else to explain why New York Times publisher
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. held the story about Bush’s warrantless
wiretaps for more than a year, when timely publication before Election
2004 would have given the American voters a chance to deliver a judgment
on this extra-legal program. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Spying
& the Public’s Right to Know.”]
Instead of informing the nation, Sulzberger bowed
to the administration’s demands that the Times spike the story. It was
finally published on Dec. 16, 2005, because it was about to be revealed
in a book written by one of the reporters, James Risen.
Can’t Say Liar
Also note how the mainstream press continues to
choke on calling Bush a liar even when the facts are obvious. For
instance, the disclosure that Bush signed his order for warrantless
wiretaps in 2002 led researchers back to an assurance he made to the
American people in
a speech in Buffalo, N.Y., on April 20, 2004.
After calling for renewal of the USA Patriot Act,
Bush veered off into a broader discussion of wiretaps. “By the way, any
time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it
requires – a wiretap requires a court order,” Bush said. “Nothing has
changed, by the way. When we’re talking about chasing down terrorists,
we’re talking about getting a court order before we do so.”
Though a clip of Bush’s statement was carried on
network news programs, it was followed by the White House explanation
that Bush was only talking about the Patriot Act. The network news
reporters presented that claim as the final word on the subject.
But Bush’s wording indicates that he is not talking
only about wiretaps under the Patriot Act. He clearly deviates from that
discussion when he says “by the way” and adds “any time you hear the
United States government talking about wiretap.” He then insists that
“nothing has changed” when the policy had changed two years earlier.
Perhaps, a listener should conclude that whenever
Bush inserts the words “by the way” that’s a signal he’s lying. Or maybe
there’s some semantic argument about what the words “any time” mean.
If Bill Clinton’s spokesmen had tried to spin such
an obvious lie by their boss, they would have been ridiculed; the
right-wing news media would have hammered away at this proof of Clinton
lying – and the mainstream media would have heartedly agreed.
In this Bush case, however, the outcome is the
opposite. The right-wing media defends – or simply ignores – Bush’s lie,
and the mainstream press accepts the false explanation.
The pattern has been evident before, for instance,
when Bush has repeatedly lied about Iraq’s Saddam Hussein refusing to
admit United Nations weapons inspectors, thus forcing a reluctant Bush
to order the invasion in March 2003.
The truth is the opposite. Hussein relented and let
U.N. inspectors into Iraq in November 2002 and eventually gave them
unfettered access to whatever suspect-WMD sites they wanted to inspect.
According to chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix, Bush forced the U.N.
inspectors to leave in March 2003 so the invasion could proceed. [For
details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “President
Bush, With the Candlestick…”]
Watergate & Vietnam
But the Bush-Cheney revival of the Imperial
Presidency can’t be understood without knowing the history of the last
30 years. This constitutional battle was previously joined in the
mid-1970s after exposure of Richard Nixon’s Watergate spying operations
and the loss of 57,000 American soldiers in the failed Vietnam War.
Congress began reasserting its traditional position
as the Founding Fathers’ first branch of government, with control over
the purse strings, the power to declare war, and the authority to
impeach members of the Executive Branch.
The War Powers Act was passed in 1973, restricting
the president’s authority to send U.S. troops into war zones for
extended periods. In 1974, Nixon resigned in the face of almost certain
impeachment over Watergate. A year later, Congress required the
president to give timely notification about intelligence operations. In
1978, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act set standards for
national security wiretaps.
During key years of this struggle, Dick Cheney was
White House chief of staff under President Gerald Ford, and in 1976,
George H.W. Bush was CIA director. Both men chafed against these
intrusions by Congress, the press and the public into the cloistered
world of the national security elite.
CIA Director Bush launched one of the first
counterattacks in defense of the Imperial Presidency by successfully
lobbying to block release of a report on CIA abuses investigated by Rep.
Otis Pike, D-N.Y.
The White House resistance to congressional
interference surged again after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in 1981,
with Bush as his vice president. The Reagan administration clashed often
with Congress over covert U.S. military activities in Central America
and intelligence operations in the Middle East.
These tensions led Reagan and Bush to take some of
their initiatives underground to avoid congressional objections to
policies, such as military aid to Nicaraguan contra rebels and
arms-for-hostage trades with the Islamic fundamentalist government of
In effect, Reagan and Bush were asserting again
that the Imperial Presidency held intrinsic powers over foreign policy
that allowed the White House to ignore laws that barred arming the
Nicaraguan contras and shipping weapons to states, like Iran, designated
as supporters of terrorism.
After the administration’s Iran-Contra operations
were exposed in fall 1986, the constitutional tug of war resumed.
Initially, the White House retreated under a barrage of negative
publicity focused on the wacky scheme of funneling some profits off the
Iran arms sales to the Nicaraguan contras.
To protect the president,
chief of staff Don Regan cobbled together a “plan of action” shortly
before the Iran-Contra diversion was announced on Nov. 25, 1986. Marine
Lt. Col. Oliver North and his colleagues on the National Security
Council staff were to take most of the blame.
“Tough as it seems, blame
must be put at NSC's door – rouge operation, going on without
President's knowledge or sanction,” Regan wrote. “When suspicions arose
he [Reagan] took charge, ordered investigation, had meeting with top
advisers to get at facts, and find out who knew what. … Anticipate
charges of ‘out of control,’ ‘President doesn't know what's going on,’
‘Who's in charge?’”
Suggesting that Reagan
was a deficient leader wasn’t a pretty option, but it was the best the
White House could do at that moment. The other option was to admit that
Reagan had authorized much of the illegal operation, including arms
shipments to Iran through Israel in 1985 that some senior administration
officials had warned not only were illegal but possibly amounted to an
So, North was fired and
his boss, national security adviser John Poindexter, resigned. The White
House press office spun the scandal as a case of a few “men of zeal”
operating outside the authority of Reagan and Bush.
By February 1987, this
containment strategy was making progress. A presidential commission
headed by former Sen. John Tower, R-Texas, wrote a report that found no
serious wrongdoing, though it criticized Reagan's management style.
The Tower Board said the
scandal had been a “failure of responsibility” and chastised Reagan for
putting “the principal responsibility for policy review and
implementation on the shoulders of his advisers.”
Cheney to the Rescue
When the Iran-Contra investigation switched to
Congress in mid-1987, the White House got a strong helping hand from
Cheney, then a Wyoming congressman and an emerging Republican star. He
aggressively defended Reagan, Bush and other party leaders.
North received congressional immunity for his
testimony and described the White House cover-up that had followed the
Iran-Contra disclosures. He called it a “fall guy plan” with him as the
But congressional Democrats were faced with a tough
choice, especially when the Cheney-led Republicans made clear they would
fight the investigation every step of the way and pro-Reagan activists
across the country rallied to North’s defense.
In effect, the Democrats, who then controlled both
houses of Congress, had three options: one, they could get to the truth,
show that Reagan had authorized illegal operations and seek his
impeachment; two, they could reveal Reagan’s central role and take no
action, thus creating precedents for circumventing Congress in the
future; or three, they could blame Oliver North and a few other “men of
The Democrats – led by accommodating figures such
as Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana – picked option three, largely ignoring
evidence pointing toward Reagan, Bush and the CIA. By accepting North as
the fall guy, Congress put a fig leaf over its prerogatives, even as
those powers shrank.
But conservatives learned an important lesson. They
could resist congressional incursions against the Imperial Presidency by
both battling inside Congress and turning loose their emerging media
power and energized right-wing operatives. They discovered that the
Democrats would buckle.
The Republican Iran-Contra success also encouraged
conservatives to keep building the media infrastructure, adding major
new voices on right-wing talk radio, Fox News and influential Internet
sites through the 1990s. Meanwhile, on the Left, progressive funders
continued to spurn proposals to build media.
After Texas Gov. George W. Bush wrested the
presidential election away from Vice President Al Gore in 2000, the
advocates of the Imperial Presidency were ready to consolidate their
Bush announced as much in December 2000 when he
joked that “if this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot
easier – so long as I’m the dictator.” On Jan. 20, 2001, in one of his
first acts in office, Bush signed an executive order expanding secrecy
over the historical records of the Reagan and Bush I presidencies.
Again, Dick Cheney was at the forefront of the
As vice president, Cheney asserted secrecy over the
meetings of his energy task force in early 2001. And after the Sept. 11,
2001, terror attacks, he helped formulate the strategy for pronouncing
Bush as the all-powerful “war president” who had the right to wield
whatever authority he wanted as long as the War on Terror lasted.
In his discussion with reporters on Dec. 20, 2005, Cheney
elaborated on his vision about the inherent powers of the presidency.
“Watergate and a lot of the things around Watergate
and Vietnam both during the 70’s served, I think, to erode the authority
I think the president needs to be effective, especially in the national
security area,” Cheney said as Air Force Two took him on an inspection
tour of the Middle East.
“Part of the argument in Iran-Contra was whether or
not the president had the authority to do what was done in the Reagan
years,” Cheney said. “And those of us in the minority wrote minority
views that were actually authored by a guy working for me, one of my
staff people, that I think was very good at laying out a robust view of
the president’s prerogatives with respect to the conduct of especially
foreign policy and national security matters.”
Cheney also warned Democrats who don’t accept this
assertion of “robust” presidential powers that they can expect to be
punished politically. “Either we’re serious about fighting the War on
Terror or we’re not,” Cheney said. [NYT, Dec. 21, 2005]
So, the gauntlet has been thrown down – and there
are no prospects this time for finessing the outcome as Hamilton and the
Democrats tried to do in the Iran-Contra Affair.
The choice is clear to American citizens, too.
Either they accept the Imperial Presidency that gives Bush the authority
to do whatever he wants in the name of fighting terrorism – from
imprisonments without trial to detainee abuse to spying on anyone deemed
a security threat – or they act now.
The battle lines are forming.
On one side are the White House legions arrayed
with superior organization, extraordinary resources and state-of-the-art
media artillery. On the other side are defenders of the democratic
republic, a tattered band armed mostly with a belief that an
unrestrained Executive is anathema to all that Americans have fought and
bled for since an earlier generation of patriots confronted the forces
of King George III on Lexington Green and at Concord Bridge.